Real Madrid v Barcelona: The peak of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho’s El Clásico rivalry

To Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho was the “f***ing chief” of the Santiago Bernabéu press room. It was in there that the cool and placid persona the Barcelona coach regularly put forward in the presence of cameras and dictaphones fell away.

Two men, once friends who worked together in the guise of captain and assistant coach at the Camp Nou in the late 1990s, were now the very best of enemies. Guardiola had, until then, refused to be drawn into the heat of battle with Mourinho, despite countless on-brand taunts and jibes sent his way by the Real Madrid boss. But that evening, ahead of the first leg of an eagerly-anticipated Champions League semi final, he finally met him half way.

“Which one is Jose’s camera?,” asked Guardiola, as he took his seat, fiddled with his water bottle and prepared for his pre-match media briefing. It wasn’t a rhetorical question, but he didn’t wait for an answer, concluding that they all must be because, after all, he owned that room.

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Stunned, the journalists present could only listen as he went on a rant at his opposite number who, just 24 hours earlier, had sat in the very same spot and stirred the pot as only Mourinho could. Guardiola simultaneously laid down the gauntlet and admitted defeat – the fight would be on the pitch, not in the papers.

The height of their rivalry came when El Clasico was at its most intense, in the midst of a run of four meetings between Barça and Madrid in 16 days. A World Series.

Guardiola’s side were clear in La Liga, coasting to a third straight title, so the 1-1 draw in the Spanish capital 11 days beforehand meant little in the grand scheme of things, apart from to restore some pride for Madrid after Mourinho’s first Clasico, which ended in a 5-0 humiliation at the end of the previous November.

The Portuguese was brought in specifically to knock Guardiola and Barça off their perch, and though he got off to the worst start imaginable in that sense, by the time the Champions League rolled around, he’d already landed the first major blow.

Mourinho was at the zenith of his powers, having led Inter to a historic treble less than a year earlier. Victory over Guardiola in the last four in Europe – in particularly the 3-1 first leg win at the San Siro – persuaded president Florentino Perez to make the call. His strengths lay in tactical nullification and mentality, not typically the most important traits in the eyes of Real Madrid’s superiors, but he was announced as their new coach days after celebrating his second Champions League triumph, incidentally on the Bernabéu turf.

Such was the dominance of Barcelona at the time, Perez opted for Mourinho despite his aversion to Galactico signings and reputation for less than eye-catching football because he represented the best chance to ruffle feathers. Mourinho was equally as eager to prove a point to the club who had undermined him once, after a spell as assistant to both Bobby Robson, for who he acted as translator, and Louis van Gaal, before opting against hiring him as Frank Rijkaard’s replacement in 2008 – instead choosing Guardiola.

The moment he ran onto the pitch to celebrate with Inter fans, stationed high in the Catalan sky, after ending Barcelona’s hopes of defending the trophy they’d won in 2009, both vindicated him and convinced Perez he was the man to upset the applecart. He’d already gott under Guardiola’s skin, but in April 2011, there was little denying it anymore.

Exactly a week prior to that press conference, Mourinho had won his first trophy in Spain: the Copa Del Rey. If Lionel Messi, the jewel in Guardiola’s crown, was central to the Camp Nou victory earlier in the season with a man-of-the-match performance, then this time it was Cristiano Ronaldo’s time to shine. He scored a trademark header in extra time at the Mestalla to clinch silverware. It was fitting that the two players who best embodied their clubs and were enduring an individual battle for supremacy themselves, were making the difference.

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Boiling point in the feud was reached because Mourinho deliberately twisted a point made by Guardiola in the aftermath of the Copa final. Pedro Rodriguez, a key component of Barcelona’s MVP strike force alongside Messi and David Villa, saw a goal disallowed for offside in Valencia.

Guardiola quipped after the game that the assistant referee must have had good eyesight to spot the decision, while not outwardly claiming it was wrong. Mourinho, sensing a glaring opportunity, told the watching world that he was surprised Guardiola had the audacity to criticise officials, even when they were correct.

“We have started a new cycle,” he said. “Up until now there was a very small group of coaches who didn’t talk about referees and a very large group, in which I am included, who criticise referees. Now, with Pep’s comments, we have started a new era with a third group, in which there is only him, that criticises the referee when he makes correct decisions. This is completely new to me.”

On the field, the heat was intense and it never truly calmed down until both Guardiola and Mourinho departed their respective posts, the former just a year later and the latter in 2013. While every Clasico was the peak of footballing excellence — it is hard to make a case for there ever being a greater collection of 22 players on a pitch for a few years — a harmonious encounter was rare.

Red cards became commonplace, particularly for the likes of Sergio Ramos, sent off in the 5-0, and Pepe, controversially dismissed the night following on from Guardiola’s press conference. Both Ramos and Pepe needed no invitation to get stuck in even without Mourinho instructing them to disrupt Barça’s play in any which way possible.

Guardiola’s men were hardly innocent. Dani Alves clearly made a meal of Pepe’s challenge on him, which ended the defender’s game, while Sergio Busquets – who had controversially gone down at the Camp Nou against Mourinho’s Inter the previous season when Thiago Motta was sent off early – was gaining a reputation for cheating.

Tensions spilled over and began to affect Spain internationally. It was alleged that a team meeting with a referee descended into chaos ahead of Euro 2012 — which La Roja won in style to complete an inaugural treble — after the squad, split almost exclusively between Barcelona and Madrid players at the time, were asked to debate the Pepe/Dani Alves incident.

By then, Mourinho’s relationship with Iker Casillas had deteriorated hugely. The Madrid goalkeeper had attempted to mend fences with close friends Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol for the sake of the national team, and was subsequently dropped for the Supercopa leg at the Bernabéu in August 2011, proof that Mourinho wanted the hatred as an ingredient in order to usurp and unsettle his rival. At his best, he was a master of the dark arts.

Even with the feeling being so personal, from the dugout to the pitch, anarchy never overwhelmed quality, no matter how tightly it walked the line. In the Champions League, Barcelona punished Madrid and Pepe through two pieces of Messi magic; his second a solo goal the likes of which have rarely been seen since. Mourinho was sent to the stands and banned by UEFA for yet more post-match comments.

He may have lost the battle as, following a 1-1 draw in the return leg, Guardiola went on to lift his second and last European crown as a coach by beating Manchester United at Wembley. But with bitterness and anger seemingly a permanent part of any meeting, he was in control of the narrative. If the football took centre stage, as it had done in November 2010 at the Camp Nou, Barcelona would win easily. Mourinho knew that and, as always, he turned the attention on the spectacle.

One such moment when it did go too far was in the Camp Nou leg of the Supercopa, that following summer. During the customary brawl that seemed deliberately more intense from a Real Madrid perspective, as if they were laying down a marker for the season ahead, Mourinho gauged the eye of the late Tito Vilanova, Guardiola’s assistant and eventual successor. It seemed he would stop at nothing in order to get what he wanted, and he hit the jackpot in the end.

Though Bayern Munich ended his hopes of guiding Los Blancos to the coveted 10th European title, another reason Perez agreed to turn the other cheek to perceived style — despite his team being exceptionally good to watch at times — and all the antics, Mourinho wrestled the league title away from a visibly exhausted Guardiola, who stepped down from Barcelona to recharge his batteries. The constant sniping and biting of his heels, even away from the Clasicos, had taken their toll.

Neither the Guardiola/Mourinho rivalry nor El Clasico have been as heated as they were in April 2011 and a decade on, both are in some ways an afterthought. When Guardiola headed for Manchester City and a wounded Mourinho, after being sacked from his second spell at Chelsea, took over at Manchester United in 2016, there was hope and expectation that hostilities would resume.

The stage was set, but Mourinho, who ended life both at Madrid and Stamford Bridge fighting with his own camp, could never get his house in order to compete properly. He was sacked again in December 2018 and headed for Tottenham Hotspur without his luck changing there. All the while, Guardiola has gone from strength to strength at City, without ever reaching the level he did at Barcelona, where he won 14 trophies in four years.

Friendship is unlikely for the pair in the future, despite that being the point from which their story began. Mourinho’s attitude probably stems from his 2008 Barcelona snub, but there was an element of professionalism about his tirade against Guardiola while at Real Madrid. We will likely never see a managerial rivalry reach those heights again. In its own way, it truly was glorious.

Real Madrid v Barcelona: The peak of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho’s El Clásico rivalry
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